Breast Cancer Survivor Advocates for Smoke-Free Housing

It’s a smoke-free apartment building, but they do it anyway and they get away with it. The smoke comes through the baseboard heater, plumbing, wall outlets, and windows. It’s in the hallways and stairwells.

Cathleen Reese

Cathleen Reese has lived in tax credit housing in Hamilton, Montana for 4 years. Although smoking in her apartment building is not allowed, Reese says she breathes in secondhand smoke every day from her neighbors who don’t obey the rules. At one point, she counted 9 people who smoked on just her floor, as well as the resident manager and property manager.

“It’s a smoke-free apartment building, but they do it anyway and they get away with it,” said Reese. “The smoke comes through the baseboard heater, plumbing, wall outlets, and windows. It’s in the hallways and stairwells.”

Moving isn’t really an option: Reese says it would take all her savings to cover upfront expenses such as 1st month’s rent and damage deposit. A disabled veteran with PTSD, she works 2 days a week as a hand on an alpaca ranch. But she was unable to work for 5 months during her cancer treatment. Besides, she says, there’s no guarantee a new place would be smoke-free. “Smokers are everywhere,” she says.

“It’s also the principle of it; it’s the fighter in me,” says Reese. “My belief is the apartment smokers should be evicted due to daily violations of the smoke-free policy.”

Health problems

Reese worries that exposure to secondhand smoke helped cause her 5 tumors. In August 2018, Reese went to the VA clinic for a routine medical exam. Her doctor recommended an ultrasound of her thyroid, which looked enlarged, and a screening mammogram because of her age, 58.

The ultrasound showed a large 4.3 cm mass pressing on Reese’s windpipe. A biopsy confirmed it was benign (not cancer), but because of the tumor’s size and location, Reese scheduled surgery to remove her left thyroid.

In the meantime, she had her mammogram. The test showed a mass in her left breast and Reese had a biopsy. On November 16, just 3 days after her thyroid surgery, Reese was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer. Because of her cancer type and because it was caught early, Reese had several options for surgery. She chose to have a mastectomy with 3 sentinel lymph nodes removed for biopsy. But the pathology report shocked Reese and her doctors. The biopsy found 2 more tumors in her breast tissue. They were a different type of breast cancer, invasive lobular carcinoma, and one of them had spread into the lymph nodes.

In January 2019, Reese had a third surgery to remove 19 lymph nodes under her left arm. Tests found cancer in 1. The surgery left Reese with lymphedema, a painful swelling in her arm that sometimes happens after this type of surgery.

Another tumor, Reese’s 5th, was found 1 month later in her right breast. It was benign but her doctors are watching it carefully.

Although some studies have suggested that the toxins in secondhand smoke may increase breast cancer risk for some women, the 2014 US Surgeon General’s report concluded that there is “suggestive but not sufficient” evidence of a link at this point. But Reese is convinced. She stays up-to-date on the latest research and is armed with other reports that do show a link. Two other nonsmokers on her floor also have cancer and Reese blames the secondhand smoke.

Keeping her sense of humor

Reese’s treatment included 2 months of chemotherapy and 6 weeks of radiation treatments. Despite side effects including fatigue (feeling very tired), diarrhea, mouth sores, and hair loss, she says she got through it with “flying colors.” She’s now begun 5 years of hormone therapy to reduce the risk of cancer coming back. But she expects to have lymphedema for the rest of her life. She goes to physical therapy and is waiting for a compression sleeve.

Reese used humor to cope with visits to the infusion center, side effects, and appearance changes. “I looked on the funny side of things,” she said. She and her friend, who took her to chemo treatments, made jokes and tried to get the nurses to laugh. “Laughing is contagious,” she says. “I kept my positive attitude because I knew I’d made the right decisions about treatment.”

Reese says knowing what to expect helped her feel more in control, and that allowed her to keep her humor intact. “I had done research on cancer.org. It’s very informative, so I was prepared about what side effects to expect and not be afraid. I knew I was going to lose my hair and I embraced it.”

“I had long red hair and I lost it in a funny way,” she said. “It came out in clumps with just a few red strands sticking straight up. I thought I looked like a baby orangutan and took selfies and sent them to my family and friends. We laughed about it.”

“I see my cancer treatment as an adventure,” said Reese. “It wasn’t all fun and games, but other people had it worse and I accepted what I went through as my process.” In July 2019, 2 weeks before her last radiation treatment, Reese’s doctors told her she was “pretty much” cancer-free. “I was so relieved,” she said.

Advocacy

Reese would like to see state and federal laws passed that make it illegal to smoke in tax credit housing. She keeps track of American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network volunteers who lobby Congress to support strong tobacco control legislation.

In the meantime, she educates people she meets about secondhand smoke and toxins in smoke. And she’s hopeful about the future. Her apartment building is about to get new management, and she already has plans to speak to the new managers about enforcing the smoke-free policies.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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